Contextual Etiquette

 Posted by on 30 March 2004 at 5:51 pm  Uncategorized
Mar 302004

Miss Manners’ latest column concerns the contextual nature of etiquette standards of vulgarity. After examining the various arguments put forth in favor of vulgarity, she writes:

Miss Manners is willing to grant that standards about what constitutes vulgarity are relative and subjective. She knows that repetition wears away the shock, so that allowing vulgarity to take its own course eventually renders it unexceptional. And she yields to no one in her opposition to censorship and the abridgment of rights.

Nevertheless, she cannot help noticing that not everything natural is good. Earthquakes, for example. And she fails to see the benefit to anyone if natural human functions, even ones that produce beneficial results — she is much too delicate to name them — are on public view.

That some like to observe or be observed does not strike her as a reason for arranging for the disinclined to do so when they are going about their normal business. And that some things may be delightful in one context and shocking in another is not a contradiction that should trouble anyone with a modicum of sophistication.

Vulgarity is one of those lapses of manners that do not arise from accident or ignorance. Whether it is showing off or showing too much, it is done to provoke others to envy or disgust. So while allowing it to become commonplace helps dull the reaction, it forces down the standards with which everyone else has to live.

Now we get to the tricky part. How do you shield some people without suppressing others?

By custom. The mannerly principle of not deliberately provoking others, which is the foundation of civilized living, supplies a sense of etiquette about what is permissible where. If you attend orgies, you cannot complain of indecency; if you stumble upon the same activities in the grocery store aisles, you should. The vulgar have their venues and should not expect to be allowed to set the tone everywhere.

Ah, how I love Miss Manners!

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